Directions to Direction: Charles Joslain

September 14, 2015 / Features

By Alex Reeves

From wads of cash in the former USSR to a more stable life at Animated Storyboards.

Despite his polite American accent, Charles Joslain insists he is 100 per cent French. Born in Nantes and growing up in Paris, his love for storytelling can be traced back to his upbringing by his mother. He didn’t really know his father and bluntly describes him as “a bit of douchebag” when we sit down for lunch in an unassuming Italian-run café near Hatton Gardens. Caught between the firm conservative morals of his mother and the liberal philosophies of his teachers, he decided to stop listening once he reached adolescence.

Stories were his rebellion against the moralising adults in his life. “A story presents an argument to you and you agree or disagree or fashion your own view,” he says. “As opposed to a lecture. I thought ‘that’s what I want to do.’”

This passion for narrative quickly focused itself into a love of film, which became his main method of escapism as a kid. With his job putting flyers under people’s windscreens and a bit of scrimped lunch money he could afford to buy one VHS per month and could watch one film at the cinema with a student discount per week. He’d make sure he got his money’s worth. “I would definitely sneak in and watch two or three in a row,” he admits.

Charles didn’t know anything about how films were made, but he had a general impression. “I knew there was a guy with the money called the producer and a guy in front of the camera called an actor. I knew there was a guy with a camera and a guy with a microphone of some sort. I thought the guy who organises all this probably has the coolest job.” Unlike most directors, he’d identified his dream job by the age of 12.

Having spent his teenage years learning English from American films (hence his unusual accent), his ambitions hadn’t changed. On 13th September 2001 an 18-year-old Charles boarded a very security-conscious Eurostar to England to begin his film degree at the Surrey Institute of Art and Design in Farnham. Due to a touch of well-intentioned plagiarism, it would take him five years to graduate.

He clashed with his tutors repeatedly, probably because some of them thought he was “an arrogant little shit, which was possibly partly true,” he says. But what he hated most were the endless restrictions defining what filmmaking should be. He rebelled against these and no more so than in his final graduation short film.

The school’s short film guidelines dictated it should be no longer than 15 minutes, with no children or animals, no special effects or make-up, no dialogue in a foreign language and no period dramas. The 20-minute film he turned in, called Edmond, takes place in Paris in the 1960s with a five-year-old girl as the lead character who becomes friends with her mysterious neighbour – a disfigured old man who needed an hour and a half of make-up every day – and has a pet rabbit. “I ticked every single one of the boxes,” he declares, still proud of himself. “And I did that on purpose to piss them off and felt really good about it.” He’s happy with the film for what it is – a student short film.

Despite his disagreements with the educational establishment, his five years studying weren’t wasted. He’d gained skills with equipment and software that would put him in good stead, started lifelong friendships and met a German girl who would have quite an impact on his life.

After graduation, life got serious. Four years into the relationship with his German girlfriend he suddenly became a father. That meant it was time for Charles to uproot himself again and move to Munich, her hometown.

He found a position as an intern at Dedo Weigart Film – the company that created the Dedolight. His German wasn’t great and it was fairly boring work, but at least he was in filmmaking.

In his first week he met someone who would become a huge figure in his life. Hearing the youngster speaking English, someone peered around a corner in curiosity. ‘Hey, you’re new here. What’s your name?’ he asked in a thick Russian accent. Charles told him and stepped into the man’s office. “I gave him my little speech,” he remembers. Abruptly, the Russian told him everything he needed to do if he wanted to make it as a director. “In 20 minutes it was more education than I’d had in five years at Farnham,” he says.

Only 23 at the time, these ideas made a huge impact. The self-assured, seemingly knowledgeable Russian had instantly earned his trust. Charles asked if he could show him some of his short films for feedback. He agreed and told him to bring a DVD at 9:30 the next morning. “At 9:29 I was knocking on his door with a DVD with menus and prints and everything. I made it as slick as I could make it.”

The Russian didn’t speak to him for a month. Charles ran into him a couple of times at work with no mention of the DVD. “Oh my God, he hated it,” the Frenchman thought. “I’m a failure. I’m never going to make it.”

One day the Russian called him back into his office. He never said if Charles’ films were good or bad, just that ‘there’s potential.’ His name was Alexej Berkovic, the Russian agent for Dedo Weigart, but his main gig was running his own production company, Mark II Productions, based in Kazakhstan. He grabbed talent from Western Europe, sent them out to the steppes to take advantage of the low production costs and made himself a nice cut in the process. He told Charles about a client and asked if he was interested in directing a commercial for them under his supervision. ‘You’re on a plane next week. So is that a yes or a no?’ It didn’t take him long to agree.

The next week he found himself in Almaty, Kazakhstan, not far from the Chinese border, directing an ad for a Russian bottled water company. It was a great chance and set him on a road towards a directing career. He picked up a few more jobs through Berkovic and soon ended up shooting his first music video in Los Angeles.

Berkovic quickly had him working for big production companies and agencies, shooting commercials for markets fro Azerbaijan to Turkey, Dubai, Russia and Kazakhstan.

There are certain stereotypes about working in the former Soviet Union. Images of suitcases full of cash and less-than-wholesome businesspeople come to mind. Fortunately Charles didn’t see any of that. “I’m sure there’s some truth to it,” he admits, “but what I got to experience were professional, extremely competent technicians. The one thing I would say wasn’t the most thrilling was the tone of the adverts. It’s a little too in your face for a western audience. But [the clients] were very happy with the work and I got to shoot a lot.”

After over a year out in the east, language barriers, cultural differences and geography were taking their toll. Charles moved back to London with some decent Russian ads on his reel and started touting his wares. This was 2009 – arguably the deepest pit of the recession for the ad industry - and so not the easiest time to be looking for work as an unknown director.

Unable to work solely as a director, he began to freelance as a motion graphics designer and video editor. He made a fair living, but had to spend a lot of his time and money flying back to Germany to see his young family. “It didn’t help the relationship,” he admits, “which was doomed anyway. I now know we were just the wrong people.”

Charles’ ties with Berkovic and the east weren’t severed though, and he occasionally spent a few weeks at a time in Asia, working with the top-quality equipment and very professional people, directing commercials millions of people there would see – just nobody in the western world.

Life was great for a while. “It was really exciting in my mid to late 20s,” he says. “When you’re away from home for three weeks and you come home with a huge wad of cash that’s great. But you do this three or four times a year for a few years and you want to settle down.”

Working out of a suitcase started to wear on him and soon the work excited him less. He specifically recalls directing three adverts for Danone for Turkey – a market of over 70 million people. “I was paid very well for this,” he appreciates, “but did I enjoy it as much as I did on that last music video that I did with really good, trustworthy people? I didn’t. It was fun. I learned from it, but the little music video was a lot more fun.”

Back in London another unexpected opportunity flew his way. The Central Film School had found his work online. They wanted someone young with a good body of work in commercials to give a one-off advertising lecture. He agreed, the feedback was good and soon it led to him overseeing an ad competition they were running. That led on to him running the advertising course for three years while keeping up his freelancing profile. He found teaching to be useful tool honing his directing skills too. “It was a really good practice to force yourself to think. Whether it’s a script or the edit that doesn’t work, you’re forced to analyse why it doesn’t work.”

Eventually the school made the position full time, so Charles had to leave to continue directing.

Last year he worked on a massive job, co-directing the documentary Between Snow and Stars, about the extraordinary lives of mushers and climbers in the Arctic and on Everest. "It was the hardest project of my life," he says, "and I owe a lot to the Producer/co-Director: Thomas Vaillant (Thomas is now a Producer at Red Bull Media in Austria). It was the first TV-length project I got involved with and I've never learned more from a single piece; in terms of production, financing & distribution."

Eventually he saw the ad for a job as a Director at Animated Storyboards – a company who work mostly in animatic and pre-visualisation. “This is interesting,” he considered. “You get a really high turnaround of work. You get to meet a lot of people in the industry because ASB has such good connections to the industry. I don’t want to do loads of those foreign jobs because they keep you away a lot. And I like London.”

This looked like his chance to settle down, but unfortunately only lasted a few months. "It was a great opportunity," Charles maintains, "they are excellent at what they do and the team is made of lovely people. Genuinely. I realised however that the work didn't seem to offer the progression I was looking for originally. Mallory [Khalifa, Managing Director] is a great boss; very open and supportive of her team members. A very fruitful experience in the end; just not quite right me."

Charles is a certified wanderer, so it'll be interesting to see where his journey leads next. For the past two years he's been developing a script with his friends at Groundwork Pictures for that feature film that burns within so many directors. His is called GiG, a thriller about a dysfuntional family's descent into anarchy in a bleak British seaside town. After a slow start, he's hoping to begin pre-production on that very soon, so the next chapter in his filmmaking career looks like it will be an eventful one.

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